JWT Chennai has just won an intriguing assignment. It has to create an exciting brand out of a Hyderabad-based cricket team that does not yet exist. True, it has a captive audience but it's a dispirited bunch of local supporters. Worse, the home cricket team they will now be expected to back may have little in common with the one they have rooted for so far.
The situation has arisen out of the Sun TV Network winning the auction earlier this year for the Hyderabad franchise. It was held before by the local media company, Deccan Chronicle Holdings, which owned the local team, Deccan Chargers, but lost the franchise after it failed to fulfil its legal obligations following a meltdown of its media business.
A true fan, an engaged fan
The mantra behind building a brand is obviously consumer engagement. This is especially true for a sports-based brand because followers need to feel passionately about it.
As Vivek Dutta, vice-president, planning, Cheil Worldwide SW Asia puts it, "It is purely about managing fans. It is about creating a whole tribe of fanatical followers. While cricket offers the opportunity to build such following and although the IPL model is regionalised, I am not sure how far it is true when it comes to loyalty among fans," says Dutta. His agency works with Delhi Daredevils, one of the successful IPL franchises.
"The property has not managed to go beyond the television and stadiums. The teams have not really become a part of people's lives. There is engagement during the tournament and there is sporadic stuff that happens later too but that whole thing about 'I love my club' that draws blood, things have not reached such fanatical levels yet," adds Dutta, drawing parallels with similar format leagues in the West.
The short duration of the IPL, under two months now, is limiting. True, the country goes into a frenzy but all too soon it is over and the fans drift off to other forms of entertainment. So it's difficult to keep the conversation going with the fans.
In the case of the Hyderabad team, the set of fans who cheered Deccan Chargers is still around and will look forward to backing the all-new team. But the sense of ownership and belonging probably has taken a beating following the recent turmoil and the team's performance being far from champion-worthy.
"We have to carry a bit of the Deccan Chargers spirit, build it and shape it for the better. It is not that we are from scratch," assures Bobby Pawar, chief creative officer and managing partner, JWT India.
Team power with star power
There is also the constant issue of finding a balance between sports and entertainment in the case of IPL. "India, unfortunately, is a celebrity-driven country. We are not as passionate followers of the game as much as followers of the stars," rationalises Melroy D'souza, chief operating officer, Professional Management Group, a sports marketing agency.
In the likely event of an entire team being changed, there are going to be new players, new "stars" for the fans to warm up to.
"The changing team nucleus will always be a challenge. The fans need something to cheer. In the case of most successful IPL franchises such as Chennai Super Kings or Mumbai Indians, the key players have mostly been retained. That has helped to build a strong identity," thinks D'Souza.
Even in the case of Kolkata Knight Riders, one of the more popular teams, while actor and team-owner Shahrukh Khan probably overshadowed the team; winning the last edition of the tournament ensured that the team is known for its skipper, Gautam Gambhir too.
Young and raring
According to Brijesh Jacob, managing partner, 22Feet - an agency that has worked extensively with Kolkata Knight Riders, the order of the day is 'smartvertising'.
"Other teams are five years ahead of establishing their unit. Even the ones that are fairly new have done their bit. Budgets remain a big constraint. The question hence is - are you good at engagement?"
Jacob points out that there is no clear brand idea from any team and it is all very tactical wherein the focus is to boost ticket sales, sell merchandise, and keep the engagement levels high.
"The task for Hyderabad is to re-invoke and re-engage the followers. It is a new team with a new wrapper. The task is slightly difficult," he says.
Digital, he thinks has and will continue to play a vital role but do not just boast about the number of fans on your Facebook page, he quickly adds.
The Indian Premier League has a long way to go. Compare it with an English Premier League. An Arsenal fan will not stop supporting the club when, say, Robin van Persie moves to Manchester United. A Liverpool loyalist will not stop wearing the club jersey proudly even when the season is not on. That is the kind of following the IPL needs to head to along with its teams. The football clubs are decades old, the IPL has barely seen five years.
There is still a long way to go in moving up from Dhoni versus Tendulkar to Chennai versus Mumbai.